The United Kingdom, like the United States, sorely needs a time-out. The Queen’s quiet passing, at the end of a long, rich life and reign, imposed it—the Lord has his reasons for when we depart this mortal life. Death puts a pause on the still-living as well as the departed. In our liturgies for those to whom highest honor is owed, we ritualize this pause in public moments of silence. Red buses stopped. Engines switched off.
During the two-minute silence following the funeral of Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, my thoughts jumbled with two emotions. First came awe: at the power of reverent spectacle as witnessed in Edinburgh, London, and Windsor. Second came regret: that my country (I am an American) is less endowed with this capacity. At no other time, at least none that I have experienced (and I am the new King’s age), does the Great Republic stand in greater need of such an affirmation of national integrity as a grieving Great Britain has just offered to the world.
One difficulty with reverent spectacle for America is inherent in our Constitution, which melds head-of-state and head-of-government into one individual. In a democracy, the latter is necessarily a transient politician. The former is a symbol of sovereignty across time and demands rarer qualities, which the late Queen possessed in abundance. The last previous American president to have played both roles well was Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose state funeral in April 1969 approached—by American ceremonial standards anyway—something of the level of the late Queen’s obsequies and surpassed them in one particular. None of the presidents, whatever their political persuasion, who followed Eisenhower through times when our country grew ever more at odds with itself and when an old stand-at-attention posture gave way to a casual slouch has played the dual roles as convincingly. Loved by some, these men have also tended to be loathed by others and thus frail representatives of sovereignty. Some, such as Nixon, Clinton, or Trump, too many Americans judged morally wanting for the high office they filled. Others thought to be of sounder character, such as Reagan and Obama, were too ideologically partisan to stand as unifying symbols to the nation. Moreover, none was a man of great accomplishment before coming to the presidency.
Eisenhower had advantages, and timing was chief among them. He was president in the 1950s, a mild time domestically when Republicans occupied a space a tick or two to the right of center and Democrats a tick or two to the left, a situation we might justifiably gaze back upon with a tear or two of nostalgia in our eyes. But that was not all. There was also something above politics that Ike had earned. He thought of himself as a professional soldier, though not just any professional soldier, of course. This was the supreme commander of allied forces on D-Day, a manager of men the stature of Churchill and de Gaulle, and a chief architect of the liberation of Europe and total victory in World War II. Although historians at first judged Eisenhower to have been a poor president, his reputation rose sharply in the years that followed, not least in belated recognition of his signal achievement as president, which was to steer his country and the West safely through the first years of the nuclear age. When he died at seventy-eight, nine years out of office and past all politics, the country paused to honor the general and president in the nation’s capital—and not there alone.
Americans sixty years ago had little experience when it came to state funerals. FDR, who died in 1945 with his political boots still on, stipulated no state funeral amid the privation of wartime. The traumatic deaths of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. early in the 1960s had occasioned outpourings of disbelief and anger, not quiet reflection on jobs well (or poorly) done though prematurely concluded. The conditions of Eisenhower’s death were just right for high ceremonial observance. The year 1969 was not that far distant from the Second World War, and hundreds of thousands of the Greatest Generation still lived. National memory of that experience and sacrifice had not yet faded away. Eisenhower died in bed at Walter Reed Army Hospital, and, as he told his son John just before, he was ready to go. When he did, a pause was called. After the tumults of the Sixties, a moment presented itself for us to think and, perhaps, to which we might now make some comparisons.
Funeral plans were well-laid and carried out with military polish. The general and president lay first in Bethlehem Chapel in Washington National Cathedral for a short family service. Then his flag-draped eighty-dollar army coffin traveled on a horse-drawn gun carriage to the Capitol Rotunda for the official lying-in-state where President Richard Nixon read the eulogy. The funeral service at the National Cathedral was attended by world leaders past and present. Churchill had died four years before, but de Gaulle still lived and was there, in uniform and kepis, to give a salute. From Mount St. Albans, the cortege moved to Washington’s monumental Union Station and the ten-car funeral train that would carry Ike back to his boyhood home, 1,600 miles west in Abilene, Kansas. Along the way, through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, thousands lined the tracks in cities and small towns to watch the great man pass. In the small town where I lived, three thousand gathered at the station as the train rolled through at eleven o’clock at night. On this point alone did Eisenhower’s ceremonies best Elizabeth’s. Upon hearing that the Queen had died at Balmoral, I assumed that her body would also return to London by train. The decision instead to give the job to the RAF had its own symbolism, though to forego one last farewell procession through the shires seemed a missed opportunity to echo her Tudor namesake.
That aside, Britain has us at a disadvantage in all this, which is instructive. Unlike Eisenhower the general and the president, Elizabeth the Queen was unburdened with responsibility for government and free from the perils to reputation that come with it. Her accomplishment was moral and necessarily undramatic: her life, one of Christian hope and charity, shone forth with fidelity to her people for ninety-six years. This is what made her into a vessel of national integrity beyond reproach, commanding respect and, beyond respect, reverence. We witnessed this reverence in action during the great funerary spectacle staged in Britain—the barking guns and tolling bells, the beauty of costume and music, the weight of old liturgies and language. In fairness to ourselves, it is worth remembering that Britain benefits from having in the bank eight hundred or so more years of history than we do, history not only of deeds done and left undone but of habits accumulated. I call this the woodwork of a civilization. We Americans should pray we keep so much and polish it so well.
It has been remarked that one of the great (and characteristically British) rituals of these recent days has been the Queue. Those 250,000 who lined up along the Thames and walked in silence past the catafalque in Westminster Hall are men and women of their times. They were more casually dressed than their dark-suited parents and grandparents who marked vigil for Churchill and George VI. Yet in manner they are of the same—I use the word here in the spiritual sense that Churchill did—island race. Though fewer now reverenced the monarch with bowed heads and bent knees, the solemn spectacle of their presence belonged to the same realm of national memory as that of their forebears. Half a century after Eisenhower’s funeral, when this sensibility was last still palpable in my country, the continuity of culture in Britain, though frayed, has not yet passed away. The death of such a woman as Elizabeth, and such a man as Eisenhower before her, bids us hold fast to what remains. The ructions of British and American politics that have quickly returned to dominate the headlines since the Queen’s death ought only to cause us to tighten our grip.
Both the BBC’s and (from this side of the pond) Foreign Policy’s official obituary of Elizabeth II includes a photograph of the Queen and President Eisenhower at the White House on the royal visit to America in 1957 marking the three hundred fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. She was thirty-one, he sixty-seven. Captions are superfluous. There they stood, young and old, every inch heads of state and repositories of integrity and continuity for their nations, old and young.